It's only January, yet we may have already seen this year's winner in the category of Misapprehensions about Chinese Characters and the Nature of Language. It appears in Xiaolu Guo's "‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain" (The Guardian, 1/10/17). Ms. Guo's long essay, an adapted extract from her forthcoming Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, is preceded by this dismal epigraph:
Desperate to find somewhere she could live and work as she wished, Xiaolu Guo moved from Beijing to London in 2002. But from the weather to the language and the people, nothing was as she expected.
Poor Xiaolu Guo!
The worst thing of all about her new life was the language. I'll let her speak to that for herself:
I didn’t want to risk feeling even lonelier than I had in China. It was not just the physical loneliness, but cultural and intellectual isolation. By the time my 30th birthday party drew to a close, I was clear about my direction: I would have to start writing in another tongue. I would use my broken English, even though it would be extremely difficult.
When the birthday party was over, I mopped the floor and did the washing-up. An idea for a novel was already forming in my mind. I would make an advantage out of my disadvantage. I would write a book about a Chinese woman in England struggling with the culture and language. She would compose her own personal English dictionary. The novel would be a sort of phrasebook, recording the things she did and the people she met.
I had to overcome the huge obstacle of my poor English. I decided I didn’t want to go to language classes because I knew my impatience would kill my will, my threshold for boredom being just too low. Instead, I decided to teach myself. Perhaps this was a huge mistake? As I studied day and night I grew more and more frustrated with English as a language, but also as a culture.
The fundamental problem with English for me was that there is no direct connection between words and meanings. In Chinese, most characters are drawn and composed from images. Calligraphy is one of the foundations of the written language. When you write the Chinese for sun, it is 太阳 or 日, which means “an extreme manifestation of Yang energy”. Yang signifies things with strong, bright and hot energy. So “extreme yang” can only mean the sun. But in English, sun is written with three letters, s, u and n, and none of them suggests any greater or deeper meaning. Nor does the word look anything like the sun! Visual imagination and philosophical understandings were useless when it came to European languages.
Technically, the foremost difficulty for an Asian writer who wants to write in English is tense. Verb conjugations in English are, quite simply, a real drag. We Chinese never modify verbs for time or person, nor do we have anything like a subjunctive mood. All tenses are in the present, because once you say something, you mean it in your current time and space. There is no past or future when making a statement. We only add specific time indicators to our verbs if we need them. Take the verb “to go”. In Chinese it is 走, zou, and you can use zou in any context without needing to change it. But in English the verb has all the following forms: goes, went, gone, going. Mastering conjugations was a serious struggle for me, almost a dialectical critique of the metaphysics of grammar.
I particularly detested the past-perfect progressive tense, which I called the Annoying PPP: a continuous action completed at some point in the past. I felt giddy every time I heard the Annoying PPP; I just couldn’t understand how anyone was able to grasp something so complex. For example, my grammar book said: “Peter had been painting his house for weeks, but he finally gave up.” My immediate reaction, even before I got to the grammatical explanation, was: my God, how could someone paint his house for weeks and still give up? I just couldn’t see how time itself could regulate people’s actions as if they were little clocks! As for the grammar, the word order “had been” and the added flourishes like “ing” made my stomach churn. They were bizarre decorations that did nothing but obscure a simple, strong building. My instinct was to say something like: “Peter tries to paint his house, but sadness overwhelms him, causing him to lay down his brushes and give up his dream.”
Another curious realisation came when I discovered that I used the first-person plural too much in my everyday speech. In the west, if I said “We like to eat rice”, it would confuse people. They couldn’t understand who this “we” was referring to. Instead, I should have said “We Chinese like to eat rice”. After a few weeks, I swapped to the first-person singular, as in “I like to eat rice”. But it made me uncomfortable. After all, how could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first-person singular all the time? The habitual use of “I” requires thinking of yourself as a separate entity in a society of separate entities. But in China no one is a separate entity: either you were born to a non-political peasant household or to a Communist party household. But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular – urgently.
Still, the desire and will to work on a first book in English propelled me through the difficulties. Every day, I wrote a detailed diary, filled with the new vocabulary I had learned. The diary became the raw material for my novel, the one I had imagined while mopping the floor after my 30th birthday party: A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary for Lovers.
Since moving from Beijing to London in 2002, Guo has had a very successful career as a novelist, essayist, and filmmaker. As early as 1991, she had published poetry and prose in Chinese, but after 2003, she is known for her writing in English. Unlike the Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose switch from Chinese to English was tortured (see "Abandoning one's mother tongue" [1/6/17]), Guo's transformation from Chinese to English was more dogged and determined. Although there were plenty of things about English that she didn't like (such as "the Annoying PPP"), she simply decided that this was going to be the language she wrote in and she would make the most of it. But the change from Chinese to English was also wrapped up with a change of national identity. When a Chinese consular official mutilated her Chinese passport and threw it back at her, she knew that she no longer could be a Chinese citizen, so all the more she was determined to make her life in this adopted language and new land.
What fascinates me most about Guo, however, is a mysterious, haunting "third language" that lies somewhere beyond Chinese and English, and which — although it is very important for her — she can never quite capture, can not write anything in it:
In one recurrent dream, my dead Chinese grandmother speaks in my hometown dialect to my western boyfriend, and my western boyfriend responds to her in his language. Both seem to understand each other perfectly without a translator. I must have been using a hidden language to narrate the dream – neither Chinese nor English. It is a dreaming language. I desperately want to capture it, and write in it.
From "Xiaolu Guo: ‘One language is not enough – I write in both Chinese and English’" (The Guardian, 10/13/16).
What is fascinating about this "third language", the language of dreams, is that it somehow encompasses her "hometown dialect", which is a Wu topolect. Guo desperately wishes to be able to express herself in this language of dreams, to write in it, yet she seems forever barred from doing so. This, I believe, is the tragedy of all literate persons who are forced to write in a language that is not their true mother tongue. I am grateful to Xiaolu Guo for evoking the pain of this separation. At the same time, her facile remarks about Chinese characters and the nature of language lead me to believe that these misconceptions are directly related to, and indeed partly responsible for, her inability to express herself in the "third language" that she longs for.
[Thanks to Mark Swofford and John Grant Ross, author of Your Don't Know China and other books]